Why I’m Going To Let My Daughter Fail Math

My daughter is just starting third grade, so, like many parents, I spent the next-to-last Saturday morning of summer trolling the school-supply aisles at three different stores to find a wide-rule composition notebook that wasn’t pink, a 12-pack (not 8, not 10) of fine-point markers, plastic-tabbed dividers that absolutely, positively had to be yellow, and a laundry list of other required first-day-of-school items.

I also picked up a small white board to write up the morning checklist that I know is going to deliver nothing but stress-free, on-time morning departures.

I can dream, can’t I?

Unfortunately, there is no one-inch binder that’s going to going to give my daughter the desire to put in the extra time and effort she’s going to need to master Rocket Math—what her teacher calls those addition and subtraction tables that every student has to memorize to do more complex calculations.

For her, Rocket Math is hell because she had to practice every night last spring to get at least 30 problems correct in under a minute, which would then allow her to move to the next level.

At first, timed practice was actually fun. She’d do the problems before dinner while I timed her. And she progressed quickly, moving up a level almost every other day. But then the plateau hit, and she wasn’t moving ahead fast enough. She became frustrated, angry, and eventually decided she hated math.

I dreaded nightly practice because it meant 20 minutes of coaching, coaxing, and ultimately, bribing her to keep trying, but, I reasoned, this is what good parents do—they push, they cajole, and when all else fails, they threaten to withhold Minecraft.

But this year I’ve decided I’m not going to stand over her with a timer and a cupcake to coax her to the finish line.

There’s not much I can do that will make her want to do well, short of setting expectations and structure. And, if you accept the findings of a major study done by sociology researchers Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, the kind of homework help I was giving my daughter was likely making the situation worse, not better. According to an opinion piece they wrote for The New York Times back in April, “[r]egardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”

While they don’t specifically mention the impact of bribery on a kid’s performance, I suspect it’s not good.

What this means for my daughter is that she just might fail her first few math quizzes. I’ve already told her that I expect her to practice and to pass, but otherwise, she’s going to have to figure out how to make that happen without a prize.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how that goes.

Find

I was leafing through an issue of Best American Poetry a couple weeks ago and found Sarah Manguso’s poem “Hell.” It just about knocked me over.

Hell

The second-hardest thing I have to do is not be longing’s slave. Hell is that. Hell is that, others, having a job, and not having a job. Hell is thinking continually of those who were truly great.

Hell is the moment you realize that you were ignorant of the fact, when it was true, that you were not yet ruined by desire.

The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I am dead is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then.

There is music in Hell. Wind of desolation! It blows past the egg-eyed statues. The canopic jars are full of secrets.

The wind blows through me. I open my mouth to speak.

I recite the list of people I have copulated with. It does not take long. I say the names of my imaginary children. I call out four-syllable words beginning with B. This is how I stay alive.

Beelzebub. Brachiosaur. Bubble-headed. I don’t know how I stay alive. What I do know is that there is a light, far above us, that goes out when we die,

and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun. It reminds me of everything I failed at,

and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.